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The world’s first major civilization developed in Egypt more than five thousand years ago. It flourished longer than almost any society in human history. The Egyptians, who were very concerned about what happens in the afterlife—that is, in a life after death—built vast tombs called pyramids for their kings, the pharaohs. Many of the pyramids are still standing. They represent some of the greatest architectural achievements of human history. Closer to home, a legacy of ancient Egypt can be found in many a modern household, thanks to the Egyptians’ domestication, or taming, of the house cat. The Egyptians were also one of the first peoples to develop a system of writing, which they called hieroglyphics; and a basic type of “paper,” derived from the papyrus plant. Though Egyptian society declined after 332 B.C., it exerted a huge influence over Greece and Rome. Out of Greek and Roman civilizations ultimately came the cultures of Europe and the nations influenced by those cultures—including the United States.
Geography of Egypt
Egypt lies in the northeastern corner of the African continent, along the Nile River. The Nile flows through a vast desert, including the Sahara, which separates Egypt from most of Africa. To the northeast of Egypt is the Sinai Peninsula, which links Africa with the Asian land mass. To the east is the Red Sea, which separates Africa from the Arabian Peninsula. North of Egypt is the Mediterranean Sea, on the shores of which many ancient civilizations developed. Today, the region around Egypt is called the Middle East. To historians studying the ancient world, this area is known as the Fertile Crescent.
Life and Death in Ancient Egypt
It is impossible to talk about ancient Egypt without talking about the Nile River, the center of Egyptian life. Just as a person’s body is built around their spine, the Nile was the spine of Egypt; without it, there would have been no pharaohs or pyramids or any Egyptian civilization of any kind—only desert.
Not only is the Nile the world’s longest river, at 4,160 miles (6,695 kilometers), it is also the only major river on Earth that flows northward. From its source deep in the African continent, in the present-day nation of Burundi, the Nile flows into Lake Victoria, crosses the Equator, and spans half the length of Africa, running through the countries of Uganda and Sudan before entering Egypt.
More than halfway along its course, near the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, the Nile changes in two important ways. The first of these changes is the beginning of the cataracts, or rapids, which interrupt the smooth flow of the river. Just above Khartoum is the Sixth Cataract. As the Nile snakes gradually northward, it passes through several more of these rapids, each numbered in descending order. The First Cataract lies near the modern city of Aswan; above this point, Egyptian civilization developed.
Even more important than the cataracts, however, is the second change. At Khartoum two rivers come together to form the Nile as the ancient Egyptians knew it. These two bodies of water are the White Nile, which flows up from the south; and the Blue Nile, which originates to the southeast, in Ethiopia. The White Nile has a relatively stable flow, whereas the Blue Nile experiences a dramatic rise and fall during the course of the year because it comes from an area prone to heavy summer rains.
In ancient times, the Blue Nile caused flooding from July to September. These floods, rather than being disasters, were essential to the life of Egypt. As the floodwaters receded each year, they left a deposit of silt, a type of soil rich in minerals. Silt has a consistency somewhere between that of sand and clay. The enriched earth was perfect for growing wheat and barley. Most years the farmers of Egypt had bountiful harvests.
Thanks to the Nile, Egypt was known as the Black Land—that is, a place of black earth good for crops. Beyond the Nile Valley, however, lay the Red Land. This was the desert, which covered more than ninety percent of Egypt. With the exception of a few scattered oases (green areas), this area was and is a hellish place where no living creature could long survive. No wonder, then, that the Egyptians’ religion depicted the red god of the desert, Set, as an evil deity.
Even with the Nile, Egypt is a hot, dry, country; without it, the climate would be almost unbearable. Although the modern nation of Egypt is more than 700 miles wide at its widest point, virtually all of Egyptian civilization—both now and in ancient times—focuses on a narrow strip of land that spreads out for a few miles on either side of the Nile. This land is the Nile Valley, which forms the rim of the river as it flows for some 500 miles through Egypt.
Cairo, the modern capital, is close to the site of Memphis, one of ancient Egypt’s capitals. Near Cairo the Nile begins its final stage before flowing into the Mediterranean Sea. This region is the Nile Delta, an area perhaps 100 miles long and about as wide. Most major rivers have a delta, a triangle-shaped region where the river slows down before emptying into the sea. In a delta, the river’s waters fan out, depositing great loads of silt and creating particularly rich soil for farming.
Not only was the Nile the source of all life in ancient Egypt, it was also the principal highway for commerce and other transportation. If people wanted to go from southern Egypt (Upper Egypt) to the north, the currents would carry their boat. If they wanted to travel from the north (Lower Egypt) to the south, they had only to rely on the Mediterranean winds to push a sailboat. Thus the river formed the framework of Egyptian civilization. A later historian would describe Egypt as “the gift of The Nile.” The Egyptians in turn believed that the Nile came from the source of all life and the source of all things both good and bad: the gods.
Gods, Pharaohs, and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt
Most ancient cultures placed a strong emphasis on gods or deities, which they used as a means of explaining things in the natural world such as the ocean and the thunder. With the exception of the Hebrews, virtually all ancient cultures had a pagan belief system—that is, they worshiped many gods. These beliefs were certainly held by the Egyptians, who usually represented their gods as beings with bodies of men or women but the heads of other creatures.
Principal among the Egyptian deities were Ra, the sun god, who later came to be called Amon-Ra; Osiris, the god of the underworld; Isis, the goddess of the home; the evil Set; and the falcon-headed Horus. There were hundreds of gods, each with its own priests, temples, and rituals. And then there were the men who the Egyptians believed were close to gods: the pharaohs.
In modern America, people are used to following the lives of celebrities, stars they read about in magazines and see on television shows. In ancient Egypt, by contrast, there was only one “star,” and he was the pharaoh. The word pharaoh means “great house” or “one who lives in the palace.” This was the title for the king of Egypt, but the pharaoh was much more than a mere king. He was seen as a link between the gods and humankind, and the people viewed him more as a divine being than as a human. They addressed him as “son of Ra” or by other godlike names, and they considered him an earthly embodiment of Horus. Thus Egyptian illustrations often portrayed the pharaoh as a falcon, like Horus, whose wings covered the world.
When a pharaoh died, the Egyptians believed, he became one with the god Osiris and ruled over the dead. This role might seem unpleasant, but to the Egyptians, the afterlife was more important than life on earth. They believed that a person did not really die: the person’s spirit would continue to live for eternity—if the people who prepared the body for burial followed certain procedures. Therefore the Egyptians built enormous tombs, the pyramids, for the pharaohs.
Pyramids were not simply graves. They were houses in which the pharaoh’s spirit would live until it came time to emerge and begin life again in the afterworld. Along with dolls symbolizing their wives and servants, pharaohs were buried with various treasures, including jewelry as well as models of furniture, chariots, and boats. So that they would not go hungry, their tombs contained great quantities of food and drink, which would often be supplemented by offerings of more food and drink at a temple attached to the pyramid.
The pyramids housed the pharaoh’s body, but that body first had to be preserved. Therefore the Egyptians developed the art of mummification. Eventually not only pharaohs, but Egyptian nobles and ultimately even rich commoners (nonroyalty) began having themselves mummified and buried in their own elaborate tombs. Indeed everyone, not just the pharaohs and the upper classes, believed that they would continue living in the afterworld. Only the select few, however, could afford to make what Egyptians considered the proper preparations.
Everything about the pharaoh distinguished him from other people—even the items he wore. One of these items was a rectangular-shaped ceremonial beard (i.e., it was not his real hair), that hung straight down from the chin about six inches. Often pharaohs were shown with arms crossed over their chests, each hand holding objects that symbolized their power: usually a whip and a crook. A pharaoh’s crook is a long, hooked, striped object that looks a bit like a candy cane.
As it is today in the desert, headgear was extremely important in the hot, dry climate of Egypt. The pharaoh’s head cloth, called a nemes, served to distinguish him from his subjects. From the front, the nemes had a shape like thick hair that hung down over both of his shoulders, to about the center of his rib cage. Like the crook, it was striped; across the top, over his eyebrows, it had a band of gold. At the center of this band were one or two golden cobras, the fearsome poisonous snakes that lived in the deserts around Egypt. This stood for the cobra goddess that protected the kings and queens of Egypt.
As impressive as the nemes looked, it was not the pharaonic crown. To describe his crown and its symbolism, however, it is necessary to appreciate what happened when a pharaoh named Menes united the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt in about 3100 B.C.
The Legacy of Ancient Egypt
The Nile Delta adjoins the only part of modern Egypt where there is a significant population that does not live on the Nile: the Mediterranean coast. This area came to be populated only after Egypt fell to the Greeks. Its most notable city is Alexandria, named after Alexander the Great. In Alexandria, the Greeks developed one of the biggest and most notable libraries of the ancient world. By that time, Egypt had long been considered a center of learning. The Greeks and later the Romans greatly admired the achievements of the Egyptians, particularly in the areas of art and architecture. The influence of Egypt on their cultures—and through Greece and Rome, on the rest of the world—was wide-ranging. Among the debts civilization owes to the Egyptians are their invention of one of the world’s first systems of writing, hieroglyphics. Along with their well-known triumphs in engineering and architecture, the Egyptians made developments in agriculture, in metallurgy, and in glass-blowing. In fact, they were the first civilization to make and use glass.
The Egyptians gave the world the concept of government administration: bureaucracy, with its good and bad points, as well as the ideas of a census (a count of all the citizens) and a postal system; on the bad side, bureaucracy. Theirs was the first national government of any significance. They became the first to put in place a civil-service system, or a means of testing the qualifications of government workers. Later the Persian postal system would become much more notable, as would the Chinese civil-service system, but the seeds of these ideas were sowed in Egypt long before.
Before the time of the Hebrews, the Egyptians developed a monotheistic religion. Long before the Greeks, they had great poetic tales of national heroes. Long before the philosophical movements of latter-day Rome, the Egyptians had experienced disillusionment and loss of faith in the old ways of doing things. When modern people look at their ancient society, existing as it did on a narrow river valley in a desert thousands of years before Christ, it is hard for them not to be awed by the Egyptians.
Some people have claimed that the Egyptians did not develop their civilization on their own, but that they had help from alien visitors who built the pyramids for them. This sort of thinking goes against serious historical study. Like claims that the Greeks simply stole their whole civilization from Egypt, such thinking insults the achievements of a great ancient culture. Yet when one looks at the majesty of the pyramids, one can understand why people would find it hard to believe the Egyptians built them on their own.
As the old saying goes, “the pyramids laugh at time.” For thousands of years they have stood, the most notable but far from the only symbol of Egypt’s great achievements. From across the sands and across the years, they seem to call out to those who are curious and brave enough to explore their mysteries. It is a call that has been answered time and again.
Meanwhile, through all the years and the changes in Egypt, the impact of its ancient culture lives on. One symbol of Egypt is as common as it is important: the domestic house cat, first tamed by the Egyptians, who worshiped the cat goddess Bastet. Egypt is a part of everyday language; terms such as pharaoh, mummy, pyramid, and paper—none of which is Egyptian in origin, but all of which describe Egyptian concepts—are household words.
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